A Slant of Light
by Paul Kane
Reviewed by Michelle Cahill
Paul Kane’s collection of Australian poems, A Slant of Light concerns itself with motion and matter, the visible spectrums. In this slim, modest volume, poems from Work Life, and the earlier Drowned Lands, as well as new poems are luminously arranged by dialectic turns. There are so many influences and traditions underpinning this work, yet it speaks to a reader with simplicity and clarity, so that one comes not merely to enjoy, but to value its irony and its philosophical refinement.
The physical and metaphysical properties of light and its objects thematically link these verses. At least two themes familiar to readers of Emily Dickinson are inferred by the book’s title: the circularity of truth and the disquiet of death, of loss and mourning. It is the “internal difference/Where the meanings are” which forms disturbing tensions that lie beneath the surface of poems about landscape, travel, friendship, family and loss.
“South Yarra,” the book’s opening poem, distinguishes light from shadow, reality from dream, as it describes the passing of time in the speaker’s study. Like doubt, the light takes no form of its own, other than objects it falls upon. The speaker’s book is illuminated, “the cyclamen luxuriates,” a blank wall is “blinding.” Materiality is evident in the careful choice of diction; the optic process of “accommodation” renders possible the gaze, but also there is a syllogistic inference being made about the waking experience and the dream, both of which in their shared similarity lay claim to reality. The apparent simplicity of the poem belies its lyric ability to unravel complexity.
Kane’s choice of “Plastic explosive on Toorak Road’ to follow the opening poem reinforces to the reader that his concerns are with quantities that can be measured. Here the charge that alters matter is scandalous but the object is simulacra: the scene, depicting a mannequin being dismantled in a Toorak shop and voyeuristically watched by a young man, evokes an unexpected emotion in the saleswoman:
She begins dismembering:
first an arm, then another, lies on the ground.
With a tenderness that perplexes her, she holds
a head in her lap. She could almost cry.
Intimacy, vulnerability and cruelty are eclipsed by an intentional ambiguity in the scene. The poem is subtle yet deeply disturbing, giving force to feelings beyond the armoury of appearance, hinting too, at dissatisfaction with the simulated world. That the speaker is somehow complicit in this, yet twice distanced, watching the watcher, deepens this fissure.
Kane’s poetics test the tensions between abstract and real matter, between external and eternal, and what that word might mean. His interest in landscape, place, in the physical nature of appearance situates a modernist aporia, “an alien shore,” an impasse in which truth and knowledge may be questioned rationally, or empirically, or with transcendental idealism rather than through deconstruction or mystic leaps. A poem like “In the Penal Colony” outlines the constructions of normative ethics, which oversimplify our existential restrictions
We are everywhere in chains, long before
this bondage confirms it
An unsentimental taking of terms, which extend beyond colonial or philosophical demarcations, is used to define entrapments “ beyond mere justice or injustice.” There is hardness and tenderness entwined, as “we tend to these machines lovingly.” Here, as elsewhere, salient use is made of the third person plural pronoun to imply a shared consciousness, in which nations and stories might converse. Kane’s unadorned style is beautifully wrought as a masculine music relying on assonance, puns, repetitions and a matter-of-fact tone:
The writs, by all rights, are the very terms
we endure with our bodies, upon our bodies.
We will be free one day, when we are as nothing.
If a Platonic or pre-Platonic ideal is imaginatively tested in this poem, other poems are more skeptical of knowledge. “Black Window” adopts the more Kantian perspective that only through appearances can we know ourselves:
we half-believe and half ignore.
Turn again says the room, but this time
vanish into what you are doing
that you may be seen for what you do
So the disparate elements of reality remain unreconciled, hope appearing like a sign, “a narrow band of light” in the existential darkness. Kane executes his prose poems very beautifully; one can observe traces of Romantic introspection in the movement as description leads to meditation and colloquy. But he makes this unique, tempering it with a critique of the light to which he alludes:
Were it not for all our cruelty,
we might live in grace, as hatred is darkness,
and darkness the absence of light.
We cannot get behind this world, only
deeper into it, until at last inside out its strangeness
is revealed and every prospect, every certainty
we thought we knew, turns foreign to us,
and fresh, like that band of light and those
This, from “Hard Light in the Goldfields,” seems to convey recognition that self, object and phenomenon are entwined. Despite the poem’s intellectual discipline one is aware of intuition, the poetic ego being subordinate to that incident between inner and outer worlds, which drives the poem towards passion.
Correspondences are drawn between aesthetics and ethics, that “grace” which eludes us. I read this as a secular slant, traces of which are found in many other poems. One delightful verse, “An Invitation,” evokes a hierarchy in terms of situation and conduct, from the low lying lands of Talbot to Mt Glasgow where the future “presides,” and where the reader is invited to join for coffee and lemon cake. The harshness of rural life, of drought, solitude, and desperation provides metaphysical reflections, which are eloquently voiced, rather than being maverick in language or compacted in craft. The wilderness is stark in “Kakadu Memory,” where ekphrasis establishes an anti-pastoral space from an abstract landscape:
The bleakness has yielded up desert colours
and the emptiness fills with bird song.
Nostalgia is replaced with despair; even the grasses “desperate…/ for moisture and forgiveness.” Menace is frequently hinted at; and in a poem like “On the Volcano” the biological order is metonymic of social hierarchies, and their implications of power:
I wouldn’t want to be a rodent on this
mountain, or anything low on the food chain.
We live among elements, any one of which
could take us in a moment.
Here, as in Emily Dickinson’s poems, ambivalence, the distinct angle between verbal style and subject creates strong psychological realities. A resisted threat is suggested. Such tonal manipulations are the hallmark of Kane’s poetics. A metaphysician who entertains ethics, and who at times employs theological tropes, his wit is a sign of his attachment to the world.
Transition, the relativity of time, the diurnal cycle, the Augustinian circle, the wave properties of light, are the physical principles on which Kane bases his eulogies. There’s a distillation informed by Emerson’s understanding that
The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the object it classifies.
The eulogies leave vivid and unassuming images of a person’s life. Some, like “Third Parent” and “Dear Margie” praise close relatives and friends, while others like “Dawn At Timor” are addressed to poet friends. Jahan Ramazani has described the transhistorical and transcultural sources of elegy, a genre steeped in formality, ritual and convention, pastoral and Puritan. Ardent yet plainly poised in their contemplation, Kane’s elegies insert a cross-cultural episteme into a national context. Movement bids the poet to “alien shores,” to “foreign seas,” where the perspectives he encounters are both a “common ground,’ and then, in mourning, “all the circumference/ of a life without the centre.” These perspectives, which intersect the local with the timeless, are relevant not merely for Australian readers but for a ‘transnationalist’ poetics, dare I mention that dangerously porous term.
And yet, the diasporic identity seems essential for the particular, inventive space of a poet who probes the disparities between reality and abstractions. For the diasporic or expatriate writer the absence of home or place may exert equal if not greater force on the imagination than home or place itself. Such liberal perspectives in Australian literature are valuable for their alterity and their cultural difference. They shed light on the way in which we see ourselves, re-classifying our literary identity.
Not strictly a modernist, not merely a Romantic, nor a transcendentalist, Kane’s work eludes easy classification. His poetics remind me of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, grounded as they are in historical and philosophical awareness, ironic and polished in their forms, yet without the scaffolding of craft or the density of thought. Pleasing for their clarity, eloquence, and fine modulations of tone these poems are gentle in their ethical suggestions. They bring to our Australian landscapes new and vital physical and metaphysical reflections.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson, “The Transcendentalist.” Bode, Carl & Cowley, Malcolm, Eds. NY: Penguin, 1979. 92-93
Kane, Paul. Drowned Lands University of South Carolina, 2000
Kane, Paul. Work Life. NY: Turtle Point Press, 2007
Ramazani, Jahan. “Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Poetry Of Mourning.” The Oxford Handbook Of The Elegy Ed Karen
Weisman. NY: OUP 2010. 601-619
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction, which has appeared in Blast, World Literature Today and Transnational Literature. She graduated in Medicine and in the Humanities, and she is an editor for Mascara Literary Review.
Born in 1935 in Limlingerode, a hamlet in the formerly East German part of the Harz Mountains, Sarah Kirsch is considered one of the most luminous figures on the reunited German poetic horizon. She has written several collections of poetry, and has been critical of socialist regimes and anti-semitism. Her awards, include the Georg Büchner, the Friedrich Hölderlin and the Petrarca Prizes; her credo is to live like a poem.
Die Bäume in diesen windzerblasenen
Das Land überrollenden Himmeln
Sind höher als die zusammengeduckten
Gluckenähnlichen Kirchen, und Wolken
Durchfliegen die Kronen die Vögel
Steigen von Ast zu Ast kohlschwarze Raben
Flattern den heidnischen Göttern
Hin auf die Schultern und krächzen
Den Alten die Ohren voll alle Sterblichen
Werden verpfiffen schlappe Seelen
Über den Wurzeln und ohne Flügel.
Der Himmel ist rauchgrau aschgrau mausgrau
Bleifarben steingrau im Land
Des Platzregens der Dauergewitter
Die aufgequollenen Wiesen die Gärten
Verfaulen und Hunden sind übernacht
Flossen gewachsen sie tauchen
Nach jedem silbernen Löffel der
Aus dem Fenster fällt wenn augenblicklich
Behäbige Marmeladen bereitet werden
In Küchen bei gutem Wetter durchflogen
Von Bäurinnen Heu im Gewand Dampf
Im Hintern auf Rübenhacken am Mittag.
Süß langt der Sommer ins Fenster
Süß langst der Sommer ins Fenster
Seine Hände gebreitet wie Linden
Reichen mir Honig und quirlende Blüten, er
Schläfert mich ein, wirft Lichter und Schatten
Lockige Ranken um meine Füße, ich ruh
Draußen gern unter ihm, die Mulden
Meiner Fersen seiner Zehen fülln sich zu Teichen
Wo mir der Kopf liegt polstert die Erde
Mit duftenden Kräutern mein eiliger Freund, Beeren
Stopft er mir in mein Mund, getigerte Hummeln
Brummen den Rhythmus, schöne Bilder
Baun sich am Himmel auf
Heckenrosenbestickt er den Leib mir – ach gerne
Höb ich den Blick nicht aus seinem Blau
Wären nicht hinter mir die Geschwister
Mit Minen und Phosphor, jung
Soll ich dahin, mein Freund auch aus der Welt –
Ich beklag es, die letzten Zeilen des
Was ich schreibe, gehen vom Krieg
the trees in these wind-blown
skies rolling over the land
are taller than the churches
hunched up like clucky hens, and clouds
fly through the tree tops the birds
move from branch to branch coal-black ravens
flutter down onto the shoulders
of pagan gods and croak up
the elders’ ears all mortals
dobbed in weak souls
above the roots and wingless.
the sky is smoke grey ash grey mouse grey
lead grey stone grey in the land
of sudden showers of continuous thunder
the bloated meadows the gardens
rotting and dogs during the night
have grown fins they dive
after every silver spoon that
falls from the window when instantly
portly marmalades are being made
in kitchens flown through in fine weather
by farmers’ wives with hay in their pants
steam in their bums on turnip fields at noon.
Sweetly summer reaches through the window
Sweetly summer reaches through the window
His hands spread out like lindens
Serve me honey and spiralling blossoms, he
Puts me to sleep, throws light and shade
Curly tendrils around my feet, I
Love resting under him outside, the depressions
Of my heels of his toes are filled into ponds
Where my head lies the ground cushions
With aromatic herbs my hasty friend, berries
He stuffs into my mouth, tigered bumble bees
Buzz the rhythm, fine images
Build up in the sky
He embroiders my body with wild roses – oh
I’d love to not look up from his blue
If there weren’t brothers and sisters behind me
With mines and phosphorous, young
Am I to leave, my friend, the world too –
I lament the last lines of what
I write run to war
Morgens füttere ich den Schwan abends die Katzen dazwischen
Gehe ich über das Gras passiere die verkommenen Obstplantagen
Hier wachsen Birnbäume in rostigen Öfen, Pfirsichbäume
Fallen ins Kraut, die Zäune haben sich lange ergeben, Eisen und Holz
Alles verfault und der Wald umarmt den Garten in einer Fliederhecke
Da stehe ich dicht vor den Büschen mit nassen Füßen
Es hat lange geregnet, und sehe die tintenblauen Dolden, der Himmel
Ist scheckig wie Löschpapier
Mich schwindelt vor Farbe und Duft doch die Bienen
Bleiben im Stock selbst die aufgesperrten Mäuler der Nesselblüten
Ziehn sie nicht her, vielleicht ist die Königin
Heute morgen plötzlich gestorben die Eichen
Brüten Gallwespen, dicke rosa Kugeln platzen wohl bald
Ich würde die Bäume gerne erleichtern doch der Äpfelchen
Sind es zu viel sie erreichen mühlos die Kronen auch faßt
Klebkraut mich an, ich unterscheide Simsen und Seggen so viel Natur
Die Vögel und schwarzen Schnecken dazu überall Gras Gras das
Die Füße mir feuchtet fettgrün es verschwendet sich
Noch auf dem Schuttberg verbirgt es Glas wächst
in aufgebrochne Matratzen ich rette mich
Auf den künstlichen Schlackenweg und werde wohl bald
In meine Betonstadt zurückgehen hier ist man nicht auf der Welt
Der Frühling in seiner maßlosen Gier macht nicht halt, verstopft
Augen und Ohren mit Gras die Zeitungen sind leer
Eh sie hier ankommen der Wald hat all seine Blätter und weiß
Nichts vom Feuer
In the Country
Mornings I feed the swans evenings the cats in between
I walk over grass pass by the ruined orchards
Pear trees grow in rusty ovens, peach trees
Collapse into grass, the fences have long surrendered, iron and wood
Everything rotten and the woods embrace the garden in a lilac bush
There I stand with wet feet close to the bushes
It has rained a long time, and I see the ink blue umbels, the sky
Is spotty like blotting paper
I’m dizzy with colour and smells but the bees
Stay in the hive even the gaping mouths of the nettle blossoms
Don’t pull them over, perhaps the queen
Suddenly died this morning the oaks
Breed gall wasps, thick red balls will probably soon burst
I’d love to lighten the trees but there are too many little apples
They effortlessly reach the crowns and cleevers
Grab me, I distinguish reeds and sedges so much nature
The birds and black snails and everywhere grass grass that
Moistens my feet fat-green it squanders itself
Even on the tip it hides glass grows in broken mattresses I flee
onto the artificial cinder path and will presumably soon
return to my concrete city here you’re not in the world
spring doesn’t let up in its bottomless greed, stuffs
eyes and ears with grass the newspapers are empty
before they arrive here the wood is in full leaf and knows
nothing about fire
Peter Lach-Newinsky is of German-Russian heritage, Peter grew up bilingually in Sydney. His awards include the MPU First Prize 2009, Third Prize Val Vallis Award 2009, MPU Second Prize 2008, Second Prize Shoalhaven Literary Award 2008 and the Varuna-Picaro Publishing Award 2009. He has published a chapbook: The Knee Monologues & Other Poems (Picaro Press 2009). His first full-length collection is The Post-Man Letters & Other Poems (Picaro Press 2010). Peter grows 103 heirloom apple varieties in Bundanoon NSW.
In 2009 Patrick was awarded his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle, Australia, where he also taught CW for three years. His thesis, Chasing the Unwritable Book, explored how identity is shaped by mental illness and the fictional possibilities it presents to the author – with a particular focus on autobiographical fiction. He is a published poet, short story writer and essayist, with his chapter on Peter Kocan ‘The Urge to Write and the Urge to Kill’ featuring in Configuring Madness, an anthology released by Rodopi Press, Oxford, last year. After graduation he relocated to Shillong, India, where he has been working on his first novel, “Slouching Towards Petersham.”
Back in the mid-nineties – before the plucking of nasal hair became a weekly chore – I shared a short intense friendship with Grant, who was, for a time, one of the Drama Department’s most recognisable actors. Humiliating as it is, I admit that I was the other one – although I consider myself reasonably fortunate; when undergrad life finished, so did my acting career.
I just couldn’t hack it. Finding an agent, turning up for castings and waiting by the phone; it all left me feeling like a beggar. And the nerves made me come across as arrogant and desperate, an undesirable combination for any potential director keen on hiring me. The last gig I had – actually, the only paying gig of my career – was as an extra in a Telstra commercial. I had to walk across a busy street in a group-shot for four hours, trying to look solemn. Ridiculously, I hoped that the producer would note my seriousness – surely more heartfelt than any of the other extras – and discover me. When the costs of the Salvos suit I purchased especially for the shoot were coupled with my train fare to Town Hall and deducted from my $120 fee, I was left with 80 bucks. Averaged over the nine months that I tried to go professional that equals $8.88 per month, or $2.20 a week. If you take out the money I spent going for the other two auditions that I blew – both of them for roles where they needed a tall guy – then we’re down to about 60 bucks, or $1.60 a week. Between that and the bullshit I got from Centrelink, it was better for everyone if I just got a job.
Ensconced in my role as a night-packer at Coles, I ran into Grant one afternoon at Burwood station when I was on my way home from the TAB. We embraced.
Man, how are ya?
How am I? What about you? You crazy fucker.
By that he meant that the last time he saw me at The Northern Star I’d been on acid. He turned to the girl he was with.
You know, like those people you meet and you think you’ll never see them again? He’s one of those guys.
I was a little embarrassed; my white polo shirt didn’t smell great and I hadn’t shaved in a few days. I was also slightly drunk. The girl Grant was with stepped forward and tried to smile, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
When I asked Grant what he’d been up to he said that he’d gotten into NIDA.
Awesome, I said – thinking bastard, arsehole and fuck, fuck, fuck, why not me?
I tried to make my exit as soon as possible, citing my non-existent controlling girlfriend, but he was having none of it.
You’re coming back to our place, man.
At Uni we had both advocated the pursuit of fame and we respected each other for being up front about it, as opposed to our acquaintances who would go on protests with the Wilderness Society, deplore the use of deodorant and spurn anything mainstream, but who all formed grunge bands with the unvoiced desire of becoming groupie-shagging, heroin-snorting, rock gods.
As we walked along I peppered him with questions about the acting course at NIDA, which was painful but preferable to talking about what I was doing, which at the time involved a lot of masturbation about the middle-aged boilers I was working with, the softening of my belly and the little gambling habit that I had acquired.
She was the one who broke the spell.
So, Peter, what do you do?
With Grant, I could’ve told the truth. But the look on her face – and the fact that she had casually mentioned she was at NIDA with him – made me lie.
I write, I said.
What bullshit. The last thing I’d written was a final essay to complete the BA, a 3000 word puff piece on Lee Strasberg and Method Acting.
Really? she said. Have you had anything published?
Well, at least that was true.
I hated her immediately and she didn’t even think enough of me for that. Back at their digs – a standard two room flat with a PULP FICTION poster, a bong, a bean-bag and a PlayStation – I had to struggle with the cup of tea she made. I asked for a strong one with two sugars; she gave me a milky brew with none.
Grant didn’t notice. All he talked was NIDA, NIDA, NIDA. After the right amount of time and one forced cough from the girl – whose name is deliberately and spitefully forgotten – I bailed and forgot him for the next ten years.
It was Facebook that brought us back together. I’d Googled him a few times, to see if he’d made it, and the results were inconclusive. His name was listed in a few references to the Sydney Theatre Company – as a spear carrier – and one or two co-op productions, but nothing else. The scarcity of information disappointed me. If he’d snagged a regular TV spot, or had made the leap to feature films, I could have revelled in some really serious envy. Conversely, if his name had drawn a complete blank I’d have toasted his failure and patted myself on the back. The longer you keep the dream alive the thinner the ranks of the hopeful become.
But there he was in his profile pic, lying on a bed with a baby asleep next to him. Now there was some reality. A baby means responsibilities. It means regular hours, a stable home and lots of the filthy lucre. Maybe he’s given up, I thought. No, I wished.
I didn’t send the request immediately. I’d only just gotten back into it, after having deactivated my account, and this time I intended to be more circumspect with my choice of friend.
So I forgot him again and went back to watching ‘Seductive Asian pussy needs it’ on RedTube.
At Uni we had been involved in a few productions together. In the show I’m thinking of we saw each other daily for weeks. It was a one-acter that I directed, and Grant had volunteered to be my stage manager. Pretty soon the rumour went round that we were both gay. It’s an easy one to pin on people in the theatre; everyone is either queer or in the closet according to the smoko conversations outside the stage door.
This gossip had a bit more sting to it though, as Grant had only just been in a queer piece and played the love interest of a competitive swimmer. The role required him to get in and snog the other dude. Neither tried to dodge it; both of them went hard and gave it some tongue. It was a tricky situation for me in the audience. My then girlfriend, Max, was sitting next to me and, as well as being friends with Grant – who we were both there to support – I was acquainted with the other actor. I had cheated on Max with his girlfriend, a well known Goth Queen and devourer of cock.
So I disliked the other dude anyhow. I can’t remember his name but he was in a band that had a minor alternative hit. At the time I feared that he would come up and make a public scene in front of Max because he knew that I had clumsily fucked his girlfriend at the Bogey Hole.
But he was cool. I was the one who had the problem. When they kissed during the middle of the play I noted a distinct twitch of jealousy from my side – though I told myself then that it was the dread of getting caught cheating – and promptly forgot it.
A few months later, at the after-party for my play, we all went along to the house of the guy that had done the lights. I had scored some pot using the money we had collected from the door – even though it was a Uni production and technically all the cash was supposed to go to the Drama Department – and we all sat back and got royally stoned, except for Grant.
He doesn’t do drugs and he never touches alcohol or coffee. Don’t ask me how the motherfucker survives. Anyway, that night he came along for the ride and acted as the designated driver. Towards the end of the bowl, when the conversation had trickled down to nothing and the eyelids of the smokers had closed to half-way, I noticed Grant looking over towards me.
He caught my gaze and mouthed, Let’s go.
It was our first sleepover. By that stage he was going out with Max’s older sister, Lynnette, so we should have been seeing even more of each other – but the girls hated the idea. They also hated each other and had endured a fucked-up family situation, with their dad introducing them to domestic violence at an early age.
So we got back to my place in the East End, had a quick cup of tea and then went up to bed. We pulled in the single mattress from the veranda and set it up a few feet from my grimy queen-sized, so there was an acceptable buffer zone.
The talk didn’t last for long before I could feel myself dozing off. I put on some music and closed my eyes. I don’t know if it was the good buzz I had or just the routine of taking a girl back and playing some Mazzy Star, but I felt the urge to reach out the hand at that point, and briefly imagined getting it on with Grant. Yes, I’m pretty sure it moved. I’ve got no idea what he was thinking, or even if he was awake.
Then I slept.
A few months after I first saw him online, I relented and sent off the friend request. He accepted it straight away and posted ‘Dude!!!!’ on my wall. We arranged for him to come around and my wife, Maya, put on a great spread – rice, daal, chicken curry – with strawberries and cream for dessert.
When he turned up I went out to meet him in the hall. From my vantage point on the third floor I could see him below as he climbed the stairs. That’s when my initial suspicions were confirmed. I thought I’d detected a receding hairline in his profile pics and now, as well as that, I noticed that he’d developed a small bald patch at the back of his skull. This made me very happy. I had to start shaving my head a few years ago, and to see that Grant’s floppy brown hair had started to fall filled me with a delightful satisfaction.
Man, I’m so sweaty, he said. Sorry.
He was carrying a skateboard and had evidently ridden it down the hill from the train station, his Bose head phones hanging from his neck.
Grant, this is Maya.
They shook hands and then Maya went back into the bedroom to read, so we could be alone for a few minutes.
He talked about his kids and his wife.
Like, I’m already the bad guy, he said. The first thing Meg does when the kids muck-up is threaten them with Dad coming into the room.
Once you ask people about their children, forget it. He could have kept going for a long time and I had to be blunt to get him onto the topic of his career.
Are you still acting?
I’ve just finished a touring production of the schools, he said.
Yeah, it’s fucked. Basically it means I’m good at talking to kids about Shakespeare.
What do you do otherwise?
Oh man, you’ll never guess.
I sell Christmas trees.
That doesn’t seem weird at all, I said. It suits you.
And it did. The last time I saw him in Newcastle, before I left for Sydney, Grant had been considering running away with the circus.
How much of the year does that take up? I asked.
Like two months, tops. We deliver the tree, set it up and then dispose of it in January.
You must meet some interesting people, said Maya, who sat down next to me.
It was the perfect thing to say, because it gave him an opportunity to do some impersonations.
I frequently hear the word disaster, he said, when I deliver to these women in the eastern suburbs. And I’m like, Love, the tsunami was a disaster, Rwanda was a disaster, your fucking Christmas tree being flat on one side is not a disaster.
He had to break off and answer the phone at that point – to take an order from a woman in the eastern suburbs who would soon be complaining about the flatness of her tree.
I reminded him of the time we’d met in Burwood, back when he’d first started at NIDA.
That’s right, he said.
What was the name of the girl you were with?
His eyes widened.
Vanessa. There’s a story about her.
Unless she had died I wasn’t really that interested.
Yeah. After one year she got kicked out of NIDA and she left town. Then a little while later I hear that she’s in some pilot in LA and now the show has been going for five seasons and she’s a big star.
Full on. Billboards on Hollywood Boulevard, the whole bit.
You should have stayed with her.
I know, man.
Does your wife act?
She used to.
In the car, as I drove him back home to Lewisham, he made a lot of references to the times when he’d been in Hamlet and Macbeth.
I mean, I was on the roster for two years, he said.
Despite myself, I was actually starting to feel sorry for him. Then, the revelation I’d been waiting for:
Man, he sighed, I just feel like I’m delaying the inevitable. You know? Each new job I get means that I don’t have to think about giving up for a few more months. And now there is another kid on the way, I dunno.
He trailed off.
I made some noises about how I was also finding it tough, but it wasn’t one of my more convincing performances.
He started talking about a project he was thinking of doing with a couple of mates – a TV series. He was meeting them at the pub to discuss it.
I didn’t press him for details. He was already on his way down to the canvas.
When I stopped the car, he shook my hand and smiled.
I probably won’t see you for another ten years, I said.
Fully, I know. But keep in touch, alright?
And congratulations, man. Your wife is awesome.
Well, she fed him, so he would say that. He didn’t have to put up with the carrot and stick dance – silent treatment and sex – which always ended with me giving in to her demands.
He closed the door, turned away and then stopped as if he’d just remembered something. He leaned back through the window and looked me in the eyes.
Peter, he said. Good luck, man.
You know what? The bastard meant it. Almost like we were on shore-leave in the middle of a war, and neither expected the other to survive beyond the next few weeks. That whole afternoon he hadn’t asked much about what I’d been doing, but he got enough to know that I hadn’t given up and that I intended to go the distance.
Meanwhile, as I drove away, I realised that he’d have a much better rebirth than me. You see, I was happy that he had kids and no money. I drew strength from the fact that he was a failing actor losing his hair, that he had almost packed it in and that he had to deliver Christmas trees every December. It meant I had won.
Then, as I indicated and took the Neutral Bay Exit, this thought occurred to me: I will never forget him.
Stephanie Ye (1982) is a Singaporean writer. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she currently works as a journalist. Her poetry and fiction have been published in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (qlrs.com).
You change out of your school uniform into street clothes in the Bishan station washroom, then take the MRT to Lavender. Ten stops, one transfer. The east-bound train is packed, people’s folded umbrellas dripping water onto the floor, the seats, other passengers. This train is sponsored by an international bank, advertising the new savings programme it has cooked up for the Singapore market. On the windows are pasted large thought bubbles positioned to seem like they are emanating from the heads of the people seated on the benches that line the walls. “Will we be able to afford a holiday in Europe?” worries an Ah Soh wearing a quixotic amount of makeup on her wilting visage. She has long green fingernails and toenails, like the spikes of some exotic and poisonous creature. “Can I afford to take care of Mum?” ponders a sleeping Bangladeshi worker, whose bulging FairPrice plastic bag swings ponderously between his knees as the train jerks to a halt.
She is already waiting in the open-air carpark next to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority building, reading a paperback. You pull your foldable umbrella from your backpack, but it turns inside-out in the wind and you’re soaked anyway as you wade across the asphalt, your track shoes going squish, squish, squish. You can see the cover of the book, distorted through the rivulets running down the windscreen, as she lays it on the dashboard. It is one of those chick lit novels done up in violent pink with a large photograph of the author on the back. For a literature teacher, she has terrible taste in novels.
“You’re late,” she greets you as you open the car door and quickly shove yourself in, though not quickly enough to prevent large raindrops from spattering the fake leather upholstery. She twists to rummage through the backseat and tosses you a scratchy scarf-looking thing. You actually have a sports towel in your bag, but you use it anyway. It smells like her.
“If you would pick me up from school, I wouldn’t be late,” you reply. The windscreen wipers thrash to life with a thudding sound. You watch her profile as she puts the car into drive and navigates out of the lot, the way her pupil seems to float in a green lake when viewed from the side. You love to watch her drive. You feel so safe in the warm submarine stillness of the car, a tank against the raging monsoon.
“You know very well that’s out of the question.” She fumbles with the radio, the static crackling into the pushy voice of a DJ, exhorting listeners to call now, call now and you could win… “Did you take a shower?”
“Well, that’s not very considerate of you.”
“Sorry. But the guys’ showers are like damn gross lah. There’s gunk and everything. I’m better off not going in there.”
She glances at you, you think to show some interest, then you realise she is checking her blind spot. “Anyway, isn’t it time you stopped playing so much football and started studying?”
“Excuse me, are you trying to tell me I’m a lousy student?” Of course, you know you are not; you are by no means the best, but you’re certainly not the worst either. If anything, you are solidly, consistently OK, which sounds pretty mediocre except that you’re in reputedly the best school in the city-state, meaning you’re at least the average of the best in Singapore. For what that’s worth.
“Of course you’re not lousy.” She slows as the car goes through a huge puddle with a mournful whoosh, blurring the windscreen with fans of water. “But if you’re serious about wanting to go to the UK for uni, you’ll have to do well for your As.”
“Not really. I really only want to go to Cardiff. It’s not that picky.”
“Oh, thank you for holding my alma mater in such high regard.”
“Don’t be so touchy lah.” You can tell she’s not really offended. “I just mean, it’s not, like, Cambridge or something. Anyway, I don’t know anyone else who wants to go there, so I’m sure they’d be happy to take me, the token Singaporean.”
“It’s not just about getting in — you’ll need one of those government scholarships — unless your parents have stumbled upon loads of cash they’d forgotten about? Have you thought about your applications for those? You have to be the cream of the crop to get one, right?”
Of course she’s right and you know she knows and so you don’t answer. You gaze out the window at the dark green rain trees by the roadside, sliding past, their branches like frozen bolts of lightning. It is afternoon, but the storm makes it seem like it is much later, or earlier: a timeless state.
“Then again, you have to ask if it’s really worth it,” she continues. “They pay for four years of uni, but you have to spend six years in the civil service – there’s obviously an imbalance built into that. I’ve always thought that was rather sneaky of them, wooing starry-eyed 18-year-olds with promises of a posh education, then turning them into indentured cubicle monkeys.”
“Better than not getting to study overseas at all.”
“That’s what exchange programmes are for. Besides, half the professors at the local Us are from abroad anyway.” She shrugs. “Even lowly A-level lit teachers like me.” She’s being self-deprecating; they only import ang mohs like her for the top junior colleges, and only for the humanities subjects, the theory being that white people can teach subjects that involve a lot of words better than the locals. Talk about a colonial hangover. But you have to admit, your favourite teachers are white. You find them more interesting to talk to.
Even then, there’s a lot of things she just doesn’t get. Like the whole wanting to go abroad to study thing. An expat like her should understand the need to live someplace else for a while, to just get the hell out of the place you were born. Or maybe that’s not even a consideration for her; maybe she’s just getting paid more to be here. You can’t really blame her like that. But how to explain? You can’t find the words to unravel the knot of emotions suddenly swelling in your chest. This feeling of cosmic and cruel injustice, that of all the random places in all the world to be from, you had to be from here. This place so tiny. Insignificant. Unsophisticated. Hot. Except when it rains.
“I’m just sick of Singapore, I guess,” you finally say. The car has stopped at a red light, and for a while the two of you sit in the burble of an ‘80s power ballad as you watch some unlucky pedestrians pirouette across the road, swaying under umbrellas and open newspapers like high-wire acrobats.
“Cardiff’s not going to be all that different, my dear. I don’t know what romantic notions you’ve got in your head, but it’s very much like Singapore. It’s a city. All cities are essentially alike.”
“Cardiff’s not the same as Singapore,” you say firmly. “It gets seasons.”
“True,” she admits. “I suppose if there’s anything I miss about Cardiff, it’s the change of season. An eternal summer can get quite tedious.”
Summer. You slowly drag a finger across the windowpane, as if you could brush away the raindrops on the other side. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Otherworldly markers for the passage of time, in a city on the edge of the equator.
She books the room for three hours, saying she has to be home for dinner by eight. Back when this all first began, you were a little depressed by the bare-bones efficiency of these rooms – just a bed, a TV, a lamp, an electric kettle, two Boh teabags. The curtains are thick enough to shut out the murky sunlight, but crashes of thunder, the tapping of rain and the blare of horns on Bencoolen Street filter through the glass. It is not a space to stay in for long. But over time you’ve come to see that it is elegant in its economy. All a man needs and nothing more. You kick off your track shoes and take off your wet clothes and hang them to dry on the back of the door, then take a quick shower. When you get out she is watching Channel NewsAsia, the weather report. Rain is general all over South-east Asia.
You are always surprised by how fair she is. It isn’t that pallid fairness that Chinese girls are, a pale yellowness like tea-stained teeth. Her skin is luminous, almost bluish, and completely without any scars or blemishes, as if her girlhood in Cardiff had been free of sports, vaccinations and other mishaps. As you make love, every inch of her body turns from blue to pink, and her green eyes take on a faded, watercolour quality. Even the rain must be softer in Cardiff.
Afterwards, she lies on a towel and continues reading her book while you try to take a nap. Rain usually makes you sleepy, but the drumming on the windowpane seems exceptionally loud, and you end up watching her instead. It still amazes you, being so close to her. You remember that first day when she walked into class, she was wearing a light blue blouse made of some kind of satin and a black form-fitting skirt with heels, not the slutty kind but rather geometric and eye-catching, like high-tech gadgets. Her dark hair was twisted up in a knot and she was wearing a brownish-pink lipstick. Your whole class, both guys and girls, fell dead silent. She is that beautiful.
“For a literature teacher, you have terrible taste in novels,” you say.
She harrumphs, not taking her eyes off the page. “Shut up. Wait till you’ve spent all night marking essays on the Mill on the bloody Floss.”
“Are we that bad, Mrs. Williams?” you ask, reaching out to stroke the back of her thigh.
You feel the impact even before you register that about 400 pages of pulp romance and fashion swaddled in pink have just descended on your head. It hurts, but you know you deserved it and so you don’t move, don’t say anything.
“I told you not to call me that when we’re here,” she says evenly.
Your head throbs to the beating of your heart. You put your hand back on her skin, still warm and slick. You close your eyes. “I’m sorry,” you say. You are, really. But you don’t open your eyes to see if the apology is accepted. Instead, behind your eyelids you fly over the sea and through the sky, punching the turbulent thunderclouds and shrugging off the raindrops, heading for Cardiff.
Michael Sala was born in Holland in 1975, in the town of Bergen Op Zoom, and he grew up moving between Europe and Australia. His autobiographical work, Memory Vertigo, was short-listed for the Vogel/Australian Literary Award in 2007. His work has since then been published in HEAT, Best Australian Stories 2009, Charlotte Wood’s Brothers and Sisters, and Harvest. He is currently working on a novel and short story collection while living and teaching in Newcastle.
Richard was busy turning his daughter into a mermaid when he saw two former students walk onto the sand. They’d been a couple for as long as he’d known them, a pair that had latched together early in high school to become a sort of romantic entity. Maybe fixture was a better word. They weren’t holding hands today. He supposed that they were nineteen or twenty by now, yet they seemed older. The boy in particular looked older. It was the way that he carried himself, his gaze locked in heavy glasses, head sagging, as if his chest were collapsing beneath its own weight. His pale upper body looked like something hefted from a shell.
The girl peeled off her dress with both hands to reveal a blue full-piece swimsuit with a white racing stripe down the side, the kind that Richard’s mother might have worn. She dropped the dress and stood there clutching her elbows without even a glance at her companion. Neither of them spoke. Richard couldn’t figure it out. There was no joy in them. What did they have to feel tired about? He had to admit this though; seeing them like that gave him a quiet sense of self-satisfaction. Perhaps it was relief.
Richard was probably no more than ten years older than they were and yet he thought about death often, as if it were just around the corner, as if he were an old man with nothing better to do than wait for its arrival. He didn’t talk about it. But whenever he allowed his mind to stray, the thought of it pulled him down. For all that, right now he felt much younger and healthier than the way these two looked and acted, and you had to be happy about that. You had to take your satisfaction where you could find it.
The couple walked to the edge of the water. Richard hadn’t seen them touch yet. He told himself that as soon as they touched, he would look away. They were hugging their own bodies, standing arm’s length apart, facing the wideness of the sea. The young man was shivering. It was mid-spring, but an icy wind sheared across the cool water. There was no one else at the beach. A reef further out broke the waves so that the swell was gentle as it washed back and forth around their knees.
‘Do I look pretty?’ May said suddenly.
‘I’ve never seen anything more beautiful,’ he replied, glancing back at his daughter.
‘Oh you have,’ she said, ‘I’m sure you have.’
May pressed her lips together and looked down to her hands. Sometimes his daughter would say things like that and it wasn’t her speaking at all, but someone else, and her tone, the look in her eyes, was a stranger’s, although it would shift away almost immediately into her own expressions – or maybe they were his. Maybe the parts that he thought really belonged to her were simply those that came from him. Maybe that was why he kept all of this up.
May had his tanned skin, and the same distant, slightly amused look in her eye that had passed down from Richard’s grandfather to his mother and through him to her. And perhaps she had the same way of thinking? You’re always somewhere else. That was something his wife had used to say to him. Sometimes he wondered if his daughter would eventually come to that conclusion about him too. Maybe she already had. It was hard to tell with a five-year-old. But he tried to bring himself back as often as possible, when he was with her, to be as attentive as a father should be. Not that he ever felt that it was enough.
The wind kicked up, autumn in it already. He looked back out at the water. The young couple were in past their waists. They stood there, staring out to sea, not speaking, hugging themselves. It was as if they stood before a precipice. Richard wanted to see something playful happen between them, a push, laughter, a shivering embrace. Instead, the young man stiffened – Richard wondered if it was at a remark – and began wading out of the water. When the sea had slid away from everything but his ankles and feet, he put his hands on his hips, dropped them again and turned to watch his girlfriend.
She was swimming away from him, freestyle, long, lazy strokes, as if she might go on forever. When she reached the edge of the reef, she found her feet and stood up. Only her head and shoulders and upper arms lifted from the water, but a straightness came into her, or perhaps it was just the angle Richard saw her from, the way the light struck upon the sea. They stood like this for a long time. Richard couldn’t look away. He could see the side of the man’s face, the perplexed, expectant shape of his expression, its nakedness without the glasses. Despite his shivering, the young man did not move out of the water or go deeper into it. His girlfriend dipped her head into the soft debris of waves folding over the edge of the reef and stared at the horizon, her hair dark and slick against her neck.
‘I need some wet sand,’ May said.
Richard looked at her. She was watching him, her upturned palms arranged either side of her body. The tail of the mermaid, sculpted from damp sand, curved away from her narrow, tanned waist.
‘Why?’ he said.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘I can’t get it. I don’t want to ruin my tail.’
‘But why do you need wet sand?’
She pointed at the join between her waist and the tail. ‘For the pattern.’
Richard looked at her for a moment longer.
‘You know,’ he said softly, ‘we came to this beach not long after we found out that you were on the way.’
‘I know, daddy.’
There was something oddly grown-up in her tone. Richard turned back to the sea. The woman was finally wading towards the man who stood there waiting, hands dangling by his hips. The man didn’t break into motion until they were side by side. They exited the water together, but still without touching. He watched them resort silently to their towels.
‘The sand, Daddy.’
‘Wait a second.’
As they drew near, Richard hesitated against the tension in his arms, and held his body low against the sand. He didn’t want to talk to them. He couldn’t remember their names. He didn’t want to feel that weight of high school, the role it demanded, the self-consciousness that came bearing down whenever he spoke to students. No matter how friendly they were, there was always this sense that they had him at a disadvantage, that they knew more about him than he did about them. He tended to feel that way about the whole world.
Once the couple had left the beach, however, he jumped to his feet and ran down to the edge of the water – he wanted to revel in his body all of a sudden, prove its vitality – scooped up a handful of dripping sand, and ran back again. He dropped it into May’s waiting hands, and turned back for more.
‘I don’t need any more,’ she called after him.
Richard nodded, washed his hands and glanced across at a solitary barnacle-covered rock, taller than he was, that rose just where the waves foamed and dissolved into the sand. On an impulse, he ran towards it, leaped up onto a ledge halfway along and then stepped up onto the top. He stared at the wildness of the landscape, the sheer sandstone cliffs, the stretch of the coast that had hardly changed in many thousands of years, the sea. Shading his eyes with one hand, he pictured himself suddenly as someone else, a figure from the far-off past.
Back then he might have been one of the wise hunting elders of some sort of tribe. That would have been him. He could run fifteen kilometres and swim forever, through summer, through winter. Despite his obsessions over death, he was in the prime of his life. He stood on the rock, flexing his legs and imagined running down a mammoth in some lost, distant epoch, leading a stone-age group of hunters from one success to another, with no long, painful memory to burden him, just the vitality of surviving each day, the pared back immediacy of that sort of life. Yes, it would have suited him.
May was waving to him. He waved back at her and rather than climbing down, jumped from the rock. The place where he jumped looked shallow, but that was an illusion created by the movement of sand through a wave dissolving back into the ocean. Instead of landing on something solid and predictable, he fell into a perplexing space, toppled backwards and hit his head against the rock from which he had jumped.
The blow cracked through his body and a spasm of nausea rolled along his insides. He floated backwards in the water, took a breath, coughed and flailed his arms, but he felt so dazed that he couldn’t find purchase in the sand beneath him and his head went under. Something brushed against his face. It was gentle and feathery and then exploded into a searing agony.
The softness kept moving, ahead of that pain by a fraction, clinging to his mouth and cheeks, fixing to his neck. He knew what it was; a Portuguese man o war, a bluebottle. Richard had seen them stranded in clusters along the edge of the sand. Most of them were so withered and dry that they crackled underfoot. The wind had been blowing them onshore for days.
Discover one of those delicate structures, shrivelled on the beach, and you might mistake it for a jellyfish, but it isn’t. It isn’t even one animal, rather four colonies of creatures locked in a deep, communal embrace. One kind of creature makes up the inflatable sail that deflates to dive from danger or tilts to stay wet, another makes up the digestive organs, another the sexual organs, and the last creature is spread through the dark blue, wandering coils that trail up to fifty metres and cling so tentatively to the skin before releasing their poison.
If Richard had had a choice in that arrangement, he’d have been the sexual organs, without a doubt. Just producing and producing, in the constant buzz of pleasure and creation, lost in the heady state of beginnings, not having to worry about when to submerge or when to dip from side to side. Ah, the sexual organs. He thought of the last time a woman’s vagina had settled across his face and how much he had enjoyed it – little had he known how long it would be before it happened again – and then his fingers found the sandy bottom beneath him and he pushed. His feet came under him and he rose into the air, shirt plastered to his body, pain clamouring inside his skull. He unpeeled the blue cord patterned across his face.
A woman had come to sit on the beach, not far from where his daughter played. She glanced at Richard, and he smiled back. As if this was just what you did. He lurched forward a step, felt heavy in his dripping pants and shirt, picked at the thin thread around his neck, tangled in the bristles of his day old growth, but his fingers were clumsy and his body shivered with the weak, sickly acceptance of the poison feeling its way inside. Flames leaping from his neck, the thread tight on his skin at the throat each time he swallowed.
His wife had been like this, a year past, rope around her neck, something playful in the tangle of the knot, as if you could unravel it with a single pull, her face slack as if it had been carved out of wax, the eyes so empty, you could never make the mistake of seeing anything alive in them. She had been hanging from the rafter in the garage, her body turning towards him when he opened the door. The eyes hadn’t been dead, just empty, like rooms left unfurnished, and it was only then that you realised how much motion there was in a living face, how much tension and complicated push and pull and endless current kept together an expression, even one that hardly moved.
Richard pulled off the last threads, took another step and slumped beside his daughter who was still focused on the intricate lacework that she was scrawling across the firmly packed sand where it cupped her waist. Her hair fluttered in the breeze. There was a faint flush to the skin of her left cheek. She was humming under her breath. The woman nearby was watching.
His heart felt as if it might spill out onto the sand. He had a terrible headache. There was a burn across his mouth. He had the urge to vomit. He ran the towel over the raw welts on his neck and forced himself to hold onto each breath for a few seconds.
He heard May say this, but it felt as if he were listening to an answering machine and a voice that had long since lost its demand for a response.
He ran the towel from one end of his neck to the other, felt the heat, the way it filled his head and chest and made his extremities cold.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Why are you crying?’
He didn’t look at her.
‘Is it because you didn’t want to get wet?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to get wet.’
Her fingers felt cool on his elbow, the tips at the crook of the joint.
‘Don’t worry,’ she assured him. ‘You’ll dry up soon.’
While his daughter sat on the couch watching cartoons, Richard cooked a soup with vegetables and lentils and sausages. No matter what went on in your life, a friend had advised him once, you had to eat, stick to the basic routines. During dinner, May noticed the welts on his face. Sitting beside him at the table, she touched them. He found himself mesmerised by her large blue eyes, the intense concentration in them, as if she were trying to read a story in those marks.
‘Bluebottles.’ Richard spoke to May the way he spoke to everyone. ‘At the beach. One got me on the face and the neck too.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I was upset. I didn’t want to talk about it.’
Her hand paused against his mouth. ‘Just because you’re upset, you can still talk, you know.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘Good. That’s good, Daddy.’
She hadn’t touched the soup yet.
‘What’s up with dinner?’ he asked.
‘Oh you know.’ She picked up her spoon, stared at the soup for a moment longer, and then stirred it desolately. ‘There’s only one thing that I like in this soup. Just one.’
She looked up at him. Richard looked away. May sighed. Her spoon clinked against the bowl. She made a show of dipping her spoon into the soup, sifted through it as if she were panning for gold, then brought it to her lips and emptied its contents into her mouth.
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘there are two things in here that I like.’
‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘That’s good.’
Afterwards they sat together in her bed. She read some stories to him, and he read some to her. Then she turned onto her side. He lay down beside her. Their faces were separated by the width of a hand.
‘I get lonely sometimes,’ she said.
‘Oh, you know, when I’m in bed. I get lonely in my bed.’
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Me too.’
‘Can I sleep in your bed tonight?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘There are times in your life when you have to sleep by yourself. Besides, you’ve got Rainbow.’
Rainbow was a bright white, over-stuffed rabbit as big as she was. Rainbow took up half the bed.
His daughter nodded, as if she’d expected him to say just that. ‘I’m not tired at all.’
‘Just lie here. Close your eyes. You’ll be asleep before you know it.’
Richard stroked her hair. She began snoring. The sea sighed through her half-open window and he could sense it expanding from the nearby coast, the way it did when evening came, filling up the air, lapping at the houses and old apartments that sprawled along the coastline, creeping inside in dreamy, floating currents of salt that whispered of loss and indifference and those first long gone sparks of life.
Cassandra Atherton is a Melbourne writer and critic. She lectures in
Creative Writing and Romanticism at The University of Melbourne. Her book of poetry, After Lolita, was published earlier this year by Ahadada Press and her first novel, The Man Jar, was published in September by Printed Matter Press. Her short stories and poems have been published in Australian and international journals. She is currently working on a book, Wise Guys, examining the role and responsibility of the American public intellectual, after interviewing Noam Chomsky, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Stephen Greenblatt and many more. She is writing her second novel, Cherry Bomb, set in Japan after receiving a fellowship to study the floating world.
She always wore her hair in a chignon. It was one of the first things he noticed about her. Silver-blonde hair swept back with a diamante barrette, always in aqua. He never saw her face then, as he was always running late and entering at the back of the lecture theatre, always sitting behind her. It was the back of her neck that got him through all those Psychology lectures. He began to time the lectures, searching for a pattern. His notebook was filled with useless words, nonsense figures and in the margins were endless sketches of her neck. Once, when he thought he was ready, she wore a strapless dress. He left in disgust.
He watched her strawberry birthmark watch him. Tiny and bulbous, it hid amongst the pale hairs to the right of her neck, a smooth crimson circle. He began taking a red pen into the lectures with him, perfecting the birthmark, positioning it over and over in his folder. Once he even stabbed his finger and let the bright red bead drip onto the page. He smiled, looking at the back of her neck, it was the closest he’d come, but when he shut the folder it smudged.
A guest lecturer was scheduled to speak on visual perception. He opened his notebook and began to think. At lunchtime he bought sixteen backpacks and placed them on a combination of seats in the last six rows. He entered late and searched for the back of her neck. Second last row three seats in from the end. Perfect. He sat behind her in the back row and unzipped his bag. He placed it on the seat next to him and tucked his heavy coat around it. Staring at the back of her neck, he waited. A young woman entered half way through the lecture and tried to sit in the back row. He coughed, a hacking cough he saved for special occasions and sniffed loudly until she moved to the third row. As the lecturer pressed the Play button, he reached for the camera nestling in his overcoat. As the lecturer apologised and pressed the button for the second time, his hand trembled with anticipation. And as the lecturer ducked behind the podium, he aimed at the back of her neck, clicking the shutter as the theatre lights dimmed and the video began. Perfect, he smiled. “Perfect,” said the lecturer from behind the podium.
He hid it in his bag and smuggled it out of the lecture theatre. It throbbed in the darkness beneath the zipper. He kept his eyes downcast, running a sweaty palm through his black hair. She was just ahead of him as he shuffled down the steps. He could hear the staccato beat of her stilettos on the concrete. He drew his coat around him. He started to sweat. Tiny beads of salt water clung to his forehead while he thought of the bright bead on the back of her neck. Two thousand six hundred and forty two more steps and he would be at his car parked in Bouverie Street. She would turn the corner in another one hundred and twenty-four steps at the Baillieu to research her thesis on states of consciousness. Once he sat behind her at a desk in the stacks. He filled four sketchbooks and used two number four Derwents replicating the fine silver hairs creeping down her neck. Bouverie Street. He thought of Emma Bovary. She would have had a fantastic neck. He coaxed the car into action, the bag sat on the passenger seat, its strap looped over the handbrake. He patted it softly, stroking the small hard cylinder in the centre, imagining the image coiled inside. Not too much longer. He locked and unlocked the door six times, each turn of the key in the lock calming him with its familiar rhythm. The loud clicking noises brought Cat to the door. She wound herself in between his legs, shedding her fine silver coat on his trouser cuffs. Her saucer was empty so he poured her some strawberry milk from the carton and reached for his brown mug on the top shelf. It didn’t seem so long ago that his sister had given it to him. A twenty-first present. She made it in pottery, painting his name in a big blue flourish on the side. He traced the letters with his finger as Cat lapped up the milk. The curly capital S was his favourite. Simon. There was a blue ink spot in the shape of a butterfly for a full stop. He pictured it on a large polished wood desk. A couch in the corner. He poured a combination of lemonade and orange juice into his mug and headed for the darkroom. Cat curled into a contented ball on the cushion. He entered his darkroom and sat stiffly on the wooden stool. He took the roll of film out of his bag, stroking the cylinder with his thumb. He looked up at the thousands of sketches of her neck and mentally decided where he would hang the photograph. He pictured it on the wall in his bedroom, the small half-crescent table adorned with mango-scented candles and lilies floating in bowls of peach-coloured water. The gentle flame of the candle would reflect teardrops of gold onto her lily neck. He looked down at the roll of film pressing it to his lips. For the first time he began to wonder what her name was.
* * *
Black and white photograph. Shiny. Tempting. Glistening. Now he could kiss the back of her neck. He teased her tiny mole with his tongue, until a moist mist clung to the glass of the picture frame, obscuring his view. He nuzzled the delicious down at the base of her neck, imagining green apple shampoo foam gliding slowly down her neck. He pictured the crystal beads of water leaping from the shower rose. He shivered, thinking about how that neck would taste, wet. He hung the picture frame on the wall, watching the gentle flame of the mango candle lick at her graceful neck. Cat licked his bare ankle, a raw, rough demand for food. He reached into his pocket for some Go-Cat and sprinkled the tiny biscuits on the carpet. They rained down on Cat’s head, a shower of smoky bacon biscuits. He licked his fingers and picked up his lecture pad from the bedside table. Reddish-brown biscuit crumbs glued themselves to the cracks in his bottom lip. He switched off the lamp, tugging at its long white cord with his toes, urging the plug out of the wall. Cat crunched on her last two treats. He shook his black backpack, making sure his keys were safely tucked in the front pocket, smiling when he heard their familiar jingle. He carefully walked to the kitchen on his tiptoes, twenty-six steps without lowering his heels to the cream carpet. He placed one totally smooth and unbruised Royal Gala apple into a brown paper bag, two Coco Pop Breakfast Bars and a flask of apricot nectar in the back pocket of his backpack. Thirty-two steps to the front door.
He locked the door, checking the door handle six times to make sure it was locked. The cold, hard metal bit into the flesh between his thumb and first finger as he tried the door one last time, his moist palm fogging up the shiny silver of the handle. With the edge of his coat he wiped the moist droplets away, creating a series of sweaty streaks. Cat pawed the left window as he got into his small orange car and drove away.
He drove feverishly, his hot hands sliding around the steering wheel. He turned into Bouverie Street. His car park was empty. He sighed and smiled, pulling into the familiar space. The street was deserted except for the metallic blue Honda Civic down near the pub. He got out and checked the meter. His watch beeped once. Four thirty. Perfect timing. It was a “use twenty cents only” parking meter. He liked this meter much more than all the others. It was clean and none of the stickers were peeling off. With the twenty- cent meter he could always be sure that he was not being ripped off. Too often people slipped a dollar or two dollar coin into the slot of a more recent machine and never used the full four hours. It was such a waste. He rattled the small cylinder in his pocket. He carried his twenty-cent pieces in there now. He even made a label for it with his calligraphy pen. The sweeping number two figure looked much like her neck. The zero, he imagined was the back of her head. If you looked closely you could see the tiny strawberry birthmark he perfectly placed on each figure. He got back into the car. You didn’t have to pay for the meter until eight o’clock. His lecture was at half past one. Only nine more hours.
* * *
She was running late. Very late. It was so unlike her to be late, but he supposed she had a reason to be. She climbed the back steps to the door of the lecture theatre. She unclipped her diamante barrette, smoothed back her hair and reclipped it into place. She pushed open the door and slipped into the nearest empty seat. The envelope was still in her hand. The corners were damp and rounded. “We regret to inform you.” Regret, she thought, “No, non je ne regrette rien.” Edith Piaf. Coffee. The two were inseparable. She decided that if she ever became rich enough she’d set up a scholarship for students who had been screwed by the system. She smiled the first smile for two days. He was wriggling in the seat next to her, bumping into her armrest, causing a mini commotion as he began snapping shut his four lecture pads and a tin of Derwent pencils. People turned around and shushed him. The lecturer glared fiercely. “It’s O.K,” she whispered, “just sit down and you can sneak out in a minute.”
He picked up his books and ran. The back door slammed shut behind him. She sighed and tucked the letter into her breast pocket. One yellow lecture pad lay open on the patterned carpet.
She thought they were just squiggles at first. A bored person’s doodles. Hieroglyphics. Walk Like An Egyptian. She could still remember that dance from high school. She would still argue that Manic Monday was better. The Bangles. Bracelets. She wondered if she’d ever be able to afford a chunky gold bracelet with a padlock. “Not this year,” she though, thinking about the letter. It was only when she picked up the notepad that she realised that the squiggles were actually female necks. Women’s napes or rather one nape repeated over and over. She flicked through the book. No writing, just thousands of squiggly necks. It was not until late that night, just before she was about to switch off her lamp that she realised it was her neck. Her nape. Her strawberry birthmark.
* * *
She returned his lecture pad. He wouldn’t look at her. She figured he was just embarrassed. “You’ll have to find another model,” she told him, “I’m completing my Masters in Tasmania. Leaving next Monday.” Manic Monday, she thought. He looked pale. Black hair, black coat, and black bag. So pale.
“Sorry.” She wondered why she was apologising.
“I missed out on a scholarship by point one of a mark.” She wondered why she was telling him this.
“I’ve got family there, you know. Won’t be so bad.” He still didn’t look up.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
* * *
He was a lunatic. He had to be. A total fruit loop. Nut bar. It was taped to the back of the chair in front of her:
Marry me (with your hair up, of course).
Model for me.
I will make you happy.
She looked at the letter. She looked at her plane ticket. Why not? What could be worse than Tasmania?
* * *
He bought her a garnet wedding band. A tiny round stone. Bulbous. Crimson. She didn’t wear a veil. He stood slightly behind her when they said their vows. Vowing to love, honour and cherish her neck. She thought about having a baby.
* * *
She cooed when he stroked her neck. Lying quietly on her stomach while her daddy, perched on the edge of a chair, sketched her for hours. “Perfect, perfect,” Simon muttered to himself. Her baby with the perfect neck. Simon called her Lily.
Darkness with long, cold fingers woke her. An empty bed. Unslept in. Unwrinkled. She thought about the box under the bed. Filled with notes, papers, books, life. Her unfinished Masters. Her letter from Tasmania. Confetti from her wedding. Simon’s mug was gone from the bedside table. His red slippers conspicuously absent. She could have worn her hair down tonight. A butterfly clip munched on her scalp. She loosened its claws and climbed out of bed.
Her bedroom door was ajar. Pink carpet. Pink walls. Pink Strawberry Shortcake quilt cover. Lilies. Six lilies in a crystal vase. Always six. From Simon. Her cot was empty, but the wooden bars were still in place. She pushed open the door and turned on the light as Simon traced a long, flat petal down her neck and along her spine. Lily took out her dummy and kissed him on the mouth. Repeatedly. Huddled in the damp corner. Sharing a secret.
* * *
The pills were half pink and half white. Like gingham. She pulled them apart like she had seen so many times in the movies. The Bad Seed. She poured the powder into her red cordial and stirred it with her finger. She searched under the bed for the blue photo album. It was sandwiched between the brown box and the wedding album. She flicked to the second page, tracing the photo through the plastic. The first photograph he had taken of her neck. She pulled back the plastic sheet, tearing the fragile photo from its sticky bed. Lily drank the cordial. She tucked her into her bed for the last time and then started the car. It was a long drive. The sea was a murky turquoise. Her last thought was of Simon’s manicured nails tracing the velvet nape of Lily’s cold, stiff neck.
Trans-Pacific writer and photographer Alex Kuo’s most recent books are White Jade and Other Stories, and Panda Diaries. His Lipstick and Other Stories won the American Book Award, and recently he received received the Alumni Achievement award from Knox College.
for PK Leung
Sixty years ago this was my universe where I lived and played, mostly by myself. Now I was back as an impatient and sweaty tourist from another postcolonial country some three thousand miles away bursting in air, as if I were late for a meeting, a bumpy voice recorder hitched to my waist. Despite the massive land use alterations resulting from the political reclamation and entrepreneurial ventures, actually I knew exactly where I was, headed home by a series of diagonal crossings and trespassing shortcuts. Or more correctly, where home was, in the last apartment building on that hill, there on a short street ending at the backside of the Royal Observatory where its seasonal typhoon signals were visible to every mariner in the harbor of this crown colony under King George VII, Number Ten being the severest.
Most of the old buildings had disappeared, and the vegetation as well, including the expansive banyan trees, now replaced by an occasional bauhinia bush planted to reverse the racial and political hegemony. Though I may not have known exactly who I was at that jostled moment, I knew precisely where I was in time, and I was in a hurry. Here, the Chanticleer bakery with its fresh, creamy napoleons—across the street from the Argyll Highlanders and the most-feared Royal Gurkha Rifles garrison—next the comic book and film magazine stand, both temptations on the walk home from the Immaculate Conception elementary school where I learned to tuck slide into second base, demonstrated one recess by an eager Canadian nun in flowing white habit.
Here the trek was interrupted by a residential development of infinite small houses, each with its narrow stone steps leading to doors of equally colorless homes, except for their sky-blue trim. Several men suddenly appeared, including one who looked Indian with a full turban, even when his skin was too light. They wanted to know what I was looking for, Torpedo Alley, they called their neighborhood in Chinese without smiling. But I knew better, they were fooling me, looking at the harbor some two hundred feet in elevation below us. It was clear they did not want me there, now as well as sixty years ago. So I explained that as a writer I was not balanced, I had just lost my way to the ferry terminal. The Indian or Pakistani man said he understood, since his wife was also a writer, of novels, he said, his eyes still a patch of doubt, and pointed, downhill first, then to the right.
Clutching my recorder then, I went downhill first, but once out of their sight around the next corner, I turned onto a muddy field where several pages were missing. Gone were the small houses and concrete sidewalk. Instead, sparse vegetable plots garnished the landscape from edge to edge. Two men in their thirties came up from one of them, though I knew they were really in their eighties, because as witness I could identify them, coming around every afternoon collecting metal, glass or paper they’d sell for recycling, rain or shine.
One of them pointed down to a row of garlic stems by his feet and said it was his. He directed his finger to the next row and said these fat cabbages were his friend’s. Then he said the last row of tiny, dark green bitter melons belonged to both of them, tendered most carefully, even in the wet and windy summer typhoon season, to keep them from rotting, he added at the end as I continued downhill to the ferry terminal.
By this time the men from Torpedo Alley had caught up with me and my transformational tricks in hallucination or dream. Like their security predecessors, they scolded me and escorted me to the gate, just when I was perfectly balanced on a high banyan limb. I used to live near here, some sixty years ago, I was sure of it.
Look here, at the Star Ferry terminal then, I skipped the Morning Star and the Meridian Star and waited for the Celestial Star for the crossing. In my hands the recorder clutched the words to the missing pages that I call home.
Sriya Narayanan works in the marketing department of a newspaper where she writes feature articles. Her poetry has been published in Nthposition and Eclectica. In 2009, she was shortlisted for the Toto Funds The Arts (TFA) Creative Writing award. A classical violinist she blogs at sriyanarayanan.blogspot.com on animal rights.
The Moral Science Teacher
The pirated book of fables is awash with typos.
Like a row of grey tulips, her uniformed audience sits
On brown benches, staring. Their eyeballs are elevator shafts.
“Why should we learn all this?”
She gives them a test to silence them
So she can have a quiet moment at the window
Overlooking an open sewer where a dehydrated puppy
Is drinking itself to death. She grabs her water flask
And rushes out to its rescue as
The 12-year-old silhouettes begin to go rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.
When she returns, it is recess and the corridors are flooded
With children who fantasize about escape.
Their shoes squish against the concrete floor.
Raising her index fingers to her temples
She makes ripples with them, closes her eyes.
The asbestos roof is being pelted with bulbous raindrops
And is bleeding poison into the girls’ wing.
She ignores a stubborn lump in her armpit, and writes
In cursive with a pastel chalk
“Dip all your deeds in faith”.
I’m running late and am stuck at this intersection
Where the temple is vomiting people into the street
(And vice versa).
A loudspeaker cone hangs like a torn wire
From a lamppost whose sides are drenched in bright red spit.
Screams of faith wash over all of us
As my agnostic lungs well up.
I should’ve known better than to bury myself
In my sheets for those extra five minutes.
Others switch off their engines as a gesture of surrender
But I accelerate, look at my watch and at the mirror
I am growing old in this car.
A coconut is severed and flung onto the syrup-soaked floor
What a waste of food.
The believers form a twitching line with no-arm distance
Sparking off a tug-of-war of tongues.
I allow myself a prayer: may this crowd dissipate.
Sunlight pours through my windshield and climbs over my face.
I try again.
Meanwhile, at the entrance, a triangular heap of footwear grows
Like a sea monkey
Once moistened, unstoppable.
Marlena loves to explore life and capture what she sees along the way. She is inspired by nature and its intricate beauty, its subtlety and power. Marlena has an honours degree in Design from UTS and is based in Sydney.
Author and musician Toby Fitch was born in London and raised in Sydney. His chapbook, Everyday Static, was published by Vagabond Press, 2010. His first full-length book of poems Raw Shock is forthcoming in 2011 with Puncher & Wattmann. tobyfitch.blogspot.com
As with rocks emerging
in the lull between waves,
flourishing green, rekindled flames,
memories arise comets
with strangely familiar names
seen from the bottom of the sea like somehow
I stepped on a light switch.
But as with autumn’s
undertow of leaves, rained-on
letters, tumbledown dreams,
memories dissolve coins cast into the sea,
while the one I keep sifting for
is lost in the gravel at my feet, the swollen
waves engulfing the rocks.
New Year’s Resolution
On a night of fireworks veiled in mist,
of Ferris wheels burdened by clouds —
after hollow music beat down the door to my ears
and soggy bones had dragged me home —
I found myself on a mattress on the floor
in the middle of a pitch-dark room
awake and listening to the echo, upstairs,
of an old, upright piano playing grand arpeggios —
twenty- to thirty-finger chords,
friends gathered round in warm chorus,
singing old standards with abandon —
and it occurred to me I want to see daybreak again
having become both cavernous and water-logged,
more afraid of myself than anyone else is of me.
Bird in a Carpark
She saw this coming:
stealth bombers hunting bats;
hailstones and lightning;
shadows burnt into the walls.
The land has been lifted
from under her claws
and replaced by a
complex of rectangles
where fluoro lights flicker,
where spellbound lemmings
go further and further
down, seeking a way up.
Concrete warren, trap
of all traps — the future
like tarmac setting fast
around machinery both
redundant and indispensable,
hissing with oil, crawling
with sparks. Tangled in
webs, she cracks her beak
on the ceiling of black thunder,
her cry becoming a distant,